The risks of too much safety

Safety is what we humans believe we should feel in our homes – although depressingly few of us actually experience such luxury around the world. As Sir David Attenborough regularly reminds us, from conception to expiration, life on earth is fraught with risk – irrespective of species.

Sometimes we take decisions that magnify those risks many times over. It’s called being human.

Obviously, some risks are greater than others. At the S&G we have been known to make outings to the local Scalextric club in the certain knowledge that the hobby accounts for 2.5 deaths per year, according to the Office of National Statistics. It could be a very unpleasant way to go – but not an altogether likely one.

Perhaps that very mild whiff of danger is why Scalextric racing remains popular among its practitioners – and might also explain why even the best races attract fairly minimal onlookers. Because when somebody takes a risk – a serious risk – we want to watch and we want to cheer for them. It enriches us.

Whenever the subject of falling public interest in events like motor races or air displays crops up, it always brings back memories of a little badinage from the script of that all-time number 1 movie in the S&G collection, The Great Waldo Pepper. There’s a scene where Robert Redford’s eponymous pilot tries to get work flying for the celebrated ‘Doc’ Dilhoefer’s Flying Circus:

Dilhoefer:      Pleased to meet you, Pepper, but the answer’s ‘no’.
Waldo:            I’d really like to talk about-
Dilhoefer:      The answer’s still ‘no’.
Waldo:            But-
Dilhoefer:      Look. I know who you are. You’re a damned good pilot, right? But barnstorming ain’t what it used to be so now you want a job in my flying circus. But do you got an act? No – right? Well the answer’s ‘no’ unless you got an act. Look up there, you think that pack of jackals wants to see a good pilot? They want blood! Sudden death is my business, Pepper. Not good pilots.
Waldo:            Wait a second, give me a chance would you? Please?
Dilhoefer:       I’ll give you the same deal I give everybody else… now you dream up a stunt where people think you’re gonna die. No! Where people are sure you’re gonna die – then I’ll take you on. You might wanna try wing-walking, I hear it’s very popular down south. Good luck.

In the end, Waldo masters the art of clambering out of the cockpit up onto the wing of his biplane while in flight, getting on to the top wing and bracing himself against the headwind.

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Wing walking used to mean climbing out of the cockpit and walking on the wings

It’s a fairly stupefying scene, all the more so for the knowledge that this sort of thing was commonplace in the ‘Twenties. In fact people were already getting a bit tired of it, which is why they put Susan Sarandon on the wing, with her clothes engineered to ‘fall off’ at an appropriate time, as seen at the top of this page.

We still have wing walkers today, of course. Usually they’re girls. The big difference is that now they’re securely lashed to a post. It’s not heart-stopping drama; rather more like Ryanair’s dream of future budget flights.

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Modern wing-walkers have stringent safety requirements – like tethers and a seat.

Any sort of display flying brings with it risk – far more than Scalextric racing – but the days of having nothing but the aeroplane’s own bracing wires and your sense of balance to keep you from the hereafter have long since gone. That’s why wing walking acts these days often give the crowd time to go and get a burger before the real action re-commences.

It was Ernest Hemingway who declared that there were only three true sports – bull-fighting, mountaineering and motor racing. The rest were merely games. In other words: if it can’t kill you instantly, you can’t call it a sport.

The news that the FIA is putting a cage over the cockpit of Formula 1 cars next year has met with widespread derision. The push for safety was a cornerstone of the presidency of Max Mosley, although the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna on live TV at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix made it the overwhelming priority.

That’s why so many Grands Prix involve dollying around in 2nd gear corners these days. Whenever a circuit is modified, it is never to speed it up. While the prices of tickets go up and up, the fans get moved further and further away in order to create more run-off, so that even once-great venues that tested the nerve and sinew now offer the same challenge as a parking lot to drivers of any great skill.

Take the one that they talk about every year – the Eau Rouge/Raidillon sweep at Spa-Francorchamps, an icon in modern Formula 1 parlance that must be taken ‘flat’. Well, Spa remained pretty well unchanged for its first 60 years, with only a few exceptions when the additional track was used where Eau Rouge doubles back on itself, heads back to the Ancient Douanne hairpin and then comes back out halfway up the hill.

For the most part, however, Eau Rouge looked just like this:

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Looking ahead to original Eau Rouge/Raidillon in 1955 – no way you’d take that flat even now

Spa was rebuilt in the early 1980s to be shorter and safer. Its return to the Formula 1 calendar came in 1983 but only one exceptionally brave man – Keke Rosberg – took Eau Rouge/Raidillon without lifting because he had a relatively meagre Cosworth DFV that was trying to keep up with the 1200hp turbo cars. ‘A granny could drive it flat now,’ he chuckled recently.

 

As the image below shows, in the ‘Eighties you thundered downhill towards a solid wall of Armco with an earth bank behind it, steered sharp left and then switched back right with Raidillon getting more acute as it crossed the old stone bridge.

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In the 1980s, Eau Rouge/Raidillon was unchanged – and not flat out.

Now we have the modern ‘complex’ after it was rebuilt prior to the 2007 season. Cars race downhill towards a wide open space on the upslope where the guard rail, earth bank and crowds used to be, have a much shorter and more open left through Eau Rouge and then go up Raidillon in a very gentle, regular curve.

The bridges are gone, and the hollows, but the old outline of the left hand side of the circuit remains. Indeed, it’s all the more clear these days for being covered with high grip asphalt to help slow a spinning or braking car before it hits the deep, soft retaining wall. You can see, if you choose to look, at what a challenge used to exist – and witness how the challenge has been so greatly reduced by the modern ‘facility’.

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Smooth as a billiard table, wide open spaces and all mod cons: Eau Rouge and Raidillon today

Spa is still one of the three most beautiful and historic venues to race a motor car in Europe, right alongside Monza and Le Mans. It is still possible to get it very wrong at Eau Rouge. But it is impossible to compare achievements here to those of the first 80 years of the circuit’s existence.

Increased safety in terms of car construction, neutered circuits and endless run-off has had a two-fold effect upon Formula 1 that has trickled down to the rest of the sport: public interest has fallen, in line with old Dilhoefer’s pronouncement to Waldo Pepper, and so too have driving standards.

When Ayrton Senna deliberately collided with Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1990 it was shocking because nobody had ever put another driver’s life at risk in quite so obvious a manner. The risks were known, accepted and kept within tolerable limits – as were the driving standards of the day.

The drama of Senna’s moment of madness has now become a tactic. Increasing safety levels have only served to encourage unsportsmanlike behaviour in the top flight, and it’s now thoroughly percolated the entire system. What was once an anathema to the sport is now the norm and it has filtered down to the children competing in the grassroots – which is perhaps the ugliest aspect of all.

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Margins for safety are open to abuse – if the consequences are less severe, more chances are taken and sportsmanship goes out of the window

Equally, once Formula 1 adopts the cage – or ‘halo’ as it is being spun – then every other FIA-sanctioned series must follow suit, just as was the case with the HANS head restraint. It is likely that even karts will have a cage around them, even if it is utterly inappropriate and causes as many potential issues as it solves – just as is the case in F1, in fact.

Increasing safety, taking the sport away from the fans and sealing itself in a bubble of safety messaging is throttling not only Formula 1 but also many other strands of motor sport – as these rally images show. The spectacle and therefore the passion are ebbing away.

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Safe, ticketed spectator zones have made rallies safer but significantly reduced numbers

In the wake of the Shoreham disaster, much the same phenomenon has struck air shows, with many restrictions being imposed upon the performing pilots and the crowds beneath.  “There’s something missing…” is the phrase that has been repeated time and again in fan forums. No cause for alarm yet – but the change has been noticeable.

When one spends long enough around a risky activity, the impact of those risks inevitably hits home. One day, pop star and former display pilot Gary Numan looked at a group photo of his former flying mates and realised that he was the only one still alive. That was the day he stopped flying. His assessment: his decision. An entirely respectable one.

The S&G once worked with a hugely promising young driver who was killed by his own front wheel rebounding into the cockpit during an accident – exactly the type of injury that the cockpit cage (or ‘halo’ if you must), is designed to prevent. Would he have wanted to race with it on the car?

We’ll never know but the odds are severely stacked against his approval for any such device. He was a racer, he weighed up the risks and accepted them. Look to the responses of other racers, I think he’d agree.

No less a man than David Brabham, team-mate to Roland Ratzenberger when he was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, popped up in the wake of the ‘halo’ announcement with views that were hardly complimentary. His belief, like that of the S&G, is that the FIA’s thought process is now completely at odds with the opinion of drivers and public alike.

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David Brabham (right) and Roland Ratzenberger: the 1994 Simtek team photo

The day after Ratzenberger’s accident, ‘Brabs’ calmly got into the sister car and started the race. He drove through the wreckage of JJ Lehto’s startline accident and that of Senna’s car at Tamburello, too – accepting the risks and believing in his team and in himself to win through. Few racers would have done any differently.

If the fixation on safety continues, however, crowds seeking to be thrilled by risk-takers may as well migrate to our Scalextric club. If somebody has taken stock of the risks and decided that they are worth the challenge then they should be applauded for it. As it is, more and more people are more likely to re-enact the great races and the amazing aerial manoeuvres via a computer game than ever witness true heroism in real life. What a sad reflection on our society that would be.

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Le Mans Classic – only two years to wait!

The biannual Le Mans Classic took place this weekend. Just a couple of weeks after the best-attended Le Mans 24 Hours in years, the Classic continued the renaissance of endurance racing with more than 100,000 people turning out despite the worst that the weather could throw at them.

But what a feast awaited those racegoers! Here is a little wrap-up video to give a taste of Le Mans reliving its glory days…

The next Le Mans Classic is in 2016 – so book now to avoid disappointment!

The four-wheeled ambassadors

Today, the good folk of the motor racing fraternity get a little green about the gills when the grey tendrils of politics are seen to encroach upon the virgin purity of their vocation. Mind you, trying to keep up with Damon Hill’s many back-flips over whether or not he believes a particular race should happen on political grounds would make anyone a touch queasy…

The fact remains, however, that in the days of Scarf & Goggles motor sport was quite simply an extension of foreign policy for most participating nations – be they hosts or participants. After all, once internal combustion had proven itself to be far superior to electricity, steam and any other form of motivation in the great races of the 1890s, there had to be a point to competition.

That point was granted by James Gordon Bennett Jr, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald. In 1899 Gordon Bennett inaugurated a trophy to be raced for annually by the automobile clubs of the various countries. Manufacturers would build cars that would be painted in the uniform colour of their nation: blue for France, white for Germany, red for Italy and green for Great Britain.

Racing for Britain: Napier shows off its Gordon Bennett entries

Racing for Britain: Napier shows off its green fleet of Gordon Bennett entries

The early 1900s were a time of fierce nationalism, sabre-rattling and military expansion which ultimately ended in World War 1. The whole of Europe was in a state of fervour, and motor racing provided a white hot crucible in which the technology of the arms race and the national status of the military powers could be trumpeted. Gordon Bennett was on to a winner from the outset.

The Gordon Bennett races were succeeded in 1906 by Grand Prix racing, but the nationalistic fervour which surrounded these races was no different – nor indeed were the racing colours. While the 1914 Grand Prix contest between the vast, organised might of Mercedes and the quixotic local hero Georges Boillot’s Peugeot was certainly spectacular in itself, it was undoubtedly given piquancy to the hundreds of thousands of French fans in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and the mustering of arms that would soon be locked in battle.

Boillot (5) and the Peugeot team carry French hopes into battle

Boillot (5) and the Peugeot team carry French hopes into battle in 1914

After World War 1 motor racing had a short break from political life but it bounced back with a vengeance with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. Il Duce wanted more than just the trains to run on time, he wanted to rebuild the Roman empire and to do that would mean making the whole of the Mediterranean aware that their neighbours could take on and beat the world in matters of might and technology.

Mussolini’s patronage of, and benefits from, the great racing programme at Alfa Romeo were a match made in heaven, in his view. The scarlet cars from Portello would howl their way to victory in Grand Prix and sports car races across the whole of Europe, only to be greeted by a beatifically smiling Duce upon their return home.

Mussolini in the hotseat as he greets Tazio Nuvoleri (centre) and the Alfa team

Mussolini in the hotseat to greet Tazio Nuvolari (centre) and the Alfa team

While Italy triumphed, a certain Austrian politician was busy making all sorts of promises about funding racing cars if he was to get into power in Germany. Adolf Hitler was wooed by the motor manufacturers and wooed them back in return, forming a triumvirate with Deutsche Bank that effectively created the mechanical power of the regime and sold it to the masses via motor racing.

Millions of Reichmarks were poured in to the racing funds of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union by Hitler’s chancellery through the era of the ‘silver arrows’. The formidable German technology on show not only chewed up and spat out the competition across Europe, Africa and North America but also bred technology that was soon to be put to work in the latest weapons of war.

Ernst von Delius prepares for the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Ernst von Delius prepares for the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

But it wasn’t only Grand Prix racing. Motorcycle racing and sports cars were equally important to the NSKK (Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahrkorps, responsible for all automotive matters in the Reich) as the means to show German supremacy.

As for the races themselves, Germany and Italy turned their major race meetings into idealogical pageants, with flags a-flutter and uniformed stormtroops aplenty… the crowds at the Nürburgring were also treated to such pre-race entertainment as a display by the prototype Stuka dive-bomber.

BMW ace Huschke von Hanstein made his sponsorship clear

BMW ace Huschke von Hanstein made his sponsorship clear

Both the German and Italian teams also had to be selective in their driver line-ups. For the German teams in particular, hiring non-German drivers was only ever done in line with national priorities. Occasionally the teams were then ‘requested’ by NSKK officials to deploy team orders, such as when Auto Union was required to allow Hans Stuck to surrender certain victory in the 1935 Tripoli Grand Prix to his Italian team-mate Achille Varzi.

You might be forgiven for thinking that, in the wake of World War 2, such political engineering would be consigned to history – but such was not the case. The cars retained their national racing colours, and when Tony Vandervell set out to create his world championship-winning Vanwall team in the mid-1950s, he did so with the sole objective of beating ‘those bloody red cars’.

Flying the flag: Hawthorn keeps a corner of Maranello forever England

Flying the flag: Hawthorn keeps a corner of Maranello forever England

Among the drivers, too, there was strong feeling. Stirling Moss always wished for a competitive British car, and when none was available made certain that his mount would at least carry British colours. Mike Hawthorn raced a green Ferrari in his first races of 1953 as a tribute from Enzo Ferrari himself, and later added a green windcheater to his racing uniform to ensure that, even when the cars were red, a flash of green was on show.

Of course Stirling also benefited from the pre-war ethos of team orders when at Mercedes-Benz, being handed his victory at Aintree in 1955 by his team-mate Fangio as a handy bit of PR for the Stuttgart marque.

Moss beats Fangio at home to Mercedes' great relief

Moss beats Fangio at Aintree – to Mercedes’ great relief

Today the modern version of Grand Prix racing takes the sport to nations which pay for the spectacle from public funds and seek to gain something back in terms of status, tourism, business and PR. The Caterham team, meanwhile, is owned by 1Malaysia, a government organization intended to promote racial harmony among its discordant Chinese, Indian and Malay population.

So it’s clear that, today, the sport is still carrying on at least some of the traditions that have kept it in rude health for more than a century. Politics are part of the fabric of life in all walks – although motor sport still has a long way to go to catch up with the Olympics!